Food producers in East Lothian are creating an innovative Business Improvement District (BID) that is believed to be the first of its kind in the world. The project will provide a collective identity for participating companies that will enable the development of business opportunities while marketing East Lothian as a quality provider of outstanding produce. By Angela Youngman

East Lothian has a thriving premium food sector and has been very active in promoting its produce to a wider market especially via shows such as the BBC Good Food Show and Speciality Fine Foods in London. Fiona Edgar, business growth officer for East Lothian Council comments: “It was through doing these shows that we realised how difficult it was for producers to get products to London. The experience showed us how best we could support producers. It became clear that businesses wanted one invoice and one distribution channel; they did not want lots of little deliveries from lots of companies. Also, when businesses get to a certain stage, they lack time to do things like PR and marketing, distribution to the London or English markets. There had to be a way to do it collectively and promote our produce, distribute and help develop sales.” 

The result was to create the first ever food and drink business improvement district. By working together under an as yet unnamed brand, the newly formed BID will deliver a range of projects and services including marketing and distribution. It will also attract further investment to East Lothian’s food and drink sector and create working partnerships with commercial and public agencies.

Councillor John McMillan, cabinet spokesperson for economic development and tourism at East Lothian Council says: “I’m delighted that our forward-thinking, innovative businesses in this sector have taken this opportunity to collaborate on a whole new level, harnessing that collaborative power to help their businesses grow even further. It’s a very bright future for this sector in East Lothian.”

Shared funds 

The BID framework is based on businesses possessing a shared interest and a common ambition coming together to generate funds, and decide how they should be spent locally. It has been used elsewhere to enhance town centres, tourism and business parks resulting in improvements in promotion, marketing, community events and loyalty schemes. There are 34 BIDs in existence across Scotland with around 200 in the UK as a whole. But this East Lothian initiative will be the first focusing purely on developing food and drink within an area.

Operating as an independent organisation, the first step in the BID will be to form a company limited by guarantee together with a board of directors. This is expected to take place this August. Due to the way it has been set up, the BID has to be commercial, and it cannot be a co-operative business. Under the terms of the legislation involved, all 37 eligible producers have to become members and pay a sliding scale levy. In order to match funding from local government, East Lothian Council’s East Lothian Food and Drink brand initiative will continue to support the sector through its programme of events, promotion and business support. It is the method of arranging funding from members that is one of the unique features of this deal.

“BIDs are usually based on rateable values of businesses,” explains Edgar. “This was not possible for this project, because many of the businesses involved are agriculturally based and do not have business rates. Therefore we have based it on the number of people employed. All companies will pay a sliding scale levy based on employee numbers. Small companies will pay £350 a year, rising to £650 for larger companies. Agricultural companies without business rates become associate members. Small start up businesses can apply to be voluntary members for the first two years. This is an innovative system because this is not the usual way of doing a BID.

“Eventually companies will pay a percentage of the sales generated through BID to cover the extra costs in marketing and distribution. 18 months or so down the line we expect to be able to set up a centralised distribution system. The idea will be that companies can drop off products at a central point and that goods will be distributed from that point.”

A BID manager will be appointed as soon as possible and will be responsible for developing social media and PR, as well as providing a central marketplace for the products created by participating companies. This will help attract the attention of sales agents in London and elsewhere.

Buyer accessibility

There will be considerable benefits for participating producers. East Lothian has a wide range of food producers such as Belhaven Fruit FarmGeorge Anderson & SonsMonaghan MushroomsThistly Cross Cider as well as restaurants, farm shops, caterers and suppliers. It will enable them to obtain greater prominence and visibility to potential buyers than might otherwise have been possible. Access to a centralised distribution point will enable companies to fulfil a wider range of orders. There will be opportunities for enhanced networking and sales promotion.

Event caterer Hickory Food is one of the companies involved in the creation of the new BID. Stephanie Stubbs, marketing director says: “This will have a huge impact on our business. East Lothian is our larder and we obtain all our produce from companies in East Lothian. We work closely with Fiona and the East Lothian Food and Drink. The BID emphasises the premium concept and premium products of East Lothian and this is in line with our own policy to use premium quality products. It is absolutely fantastic. As a business we are so positive about BID and what it will mean for our area.”

News of the innovative specialist food and drink BID has aroused considerable interest elsewhere in the UK. Edgar says: “ The Scottish government has been very supportive and other local authorities are already looking with interest at what we are doing. We had a soft launch at the Royal Highland Show which was very successful.”

Source: Produce Business UK

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